Africa File

A biweekly analysis and assessment of the Salafi-jihadi movement in Africa and related security and political dynamics.   Each edition begins "At a Glance." Country-specific updates follow.{{authorBox.message}}

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March 16 BriefingCoronavirus Will Worsen Humanitarian Crises in African Conflict Zones

[Notice: The Critical Threats Project frequently cites sources from foreign domains. All such links are identified with an asterisk (*) for the reader's awareness.]

The global coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak will worsen humanitarian crises caused by security and governance breakdowns in Africa. About half of the continent’s 54 countries have reported cases, and the number of cases is expected to grow. The pandemic may strain the continent’s fragile health care system. It is particularly dangerous to migrant, refugee, and internally displaced populations who suffer an acute lack of access to medical care, sanitation, and nutrition. The outbreak could also disrupt counterterrorism and peacekeeping missions if troop-contributing nations reprioritize their militaries to respond to the public health crisis.

In West Africa, a Salafi-jihadi insurgency is causing mass displacement that will compromise the pandemic response. Salafi-jihadi groups linked to al Qaeda and the Islamic State are waging a campaign to destroy and replace state and local governance across a large swath of Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger. Salafi-jihadi violence has caused the world’s fastest growing displacement crisis in Burkina Faso, forcing hundreds of thousands of people to flee their homes.

Burkina Faso reported its first cases of coronavirus on March 9. The virus’ spread will likely compound the already severe crisis in Burkina Faso and further limit the state’s ability to respond to the Salafi-jihadi insurgency, which increasingly threatens neighboring countries.

In Libya, global and regional competition is fueling a conflict that is destroying the country’s institutions and harming vulnerable migrant populations in particular. Several foreign powers are perpetuating Libya’s civil war by providing arms, fighters, and funding. The conflict has severely degraded the Libyan health care system, and dozens of attacks have targeted health workers and facilities directly. An ongoing blockade of Libya’s oil resources is contributing to an economic crisis that also undermines the health sector.

The war and the pandemic are also dire threats to migrant populations trapped in Libya, where they lack access to basic services and have been the target of air strikes. The Libyan coast guard intercepted over 400 migrants and returned them to dangerous detention centers in Tripoli on March 15.

Also in this Africa File:

  • TUNISIA: Likely Islamic State militants conducted a suicide bombing at a checkpoint near the US embassy in Tunis. This attack may signal a trend of covert Islamic State operatives targeting US embassies across the Middle East and North Africa following a potentially related incident in Beirut, Lebanon.
  • LIBYA: Libyan warlord Khalifa Haftar met with European leaders but is unlikely to agree to a cease-fire while he retains significant foreign backing. Haftar, whose primary backers include the UAE, Egypt, Russia, and Saudi Arabia, has also begun to strengthen ties with Syrian President Bashar al Assad’s regime.
  • SAHEL: An al Qaeda–linked Salafi-jihadi group in the Sahel announced its willingness to negotiate with the Malian government if French and UN forces withdraw from the country.
  • LAKE CHAD: Members of the Islamic State’s West Africa Province reportedly mutinied over restrictions on the group’s rules of engagement. Leadership changes may make the group more lethal in the short term but could undermine its efforts to gain popular support.
  • SUDAN: The attempted assassination of Sudan’s prime minister indicates the country’s fragile new government may destabilize.
  • KENYA and SOMALIA: Al Shabaab will likely attempt to con duct a high-casualty attack in Nairobi, Kenya’s capital, in the coming months.

Read Further On:

North Africa

West Africa

East Africa

 


At a Glance: The Salafi-Jihadi Threat in Africa

Updated March 10, 2020

Global counterterrorism efforts are rapidly receding as the US shifts its strategic focus to competition with Iran, China, Russia, and North Korea. The US administration has begun to withdraw troops from Afghanistan after signing a peace deal with the Taliban on February 29. The future of Iraq, and US forces’ presence there, is uncertain. Indicators of the Islamic State’s return are apparent in both Iraq and Syria, however, as the group recovers from the death of its leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi and other senior officials in late October 2019.

Meanwhile, the Salafi-jihadi movement, including al Qaeda and Islamic State affiliates and allies, continues to make gains in Africa, including in areas where previous counterterrorism efforts had significantly reduced Salafi-jihadi groups’ capabilities. The movement is positioned to take advantage of the expected general reduction in counterterrorism pressure to establish new support zones, consolidate old ones, increase attack capabilities, and expand to new areas of operations. The Salafi-jihadi movement is on the offensive in Burkina Faso, on the counteroffensive in Libya, and stalemated in Mali, Somalia, and Nigeria. However, conditions in these last three countries favor the Salafi-jihadi movement rather than its opponents in the coming year.

Libya’s civil war, reignited on a large scale in April 2019, will continue to fuel the conditions of a Salafi-jihadi comeback, particularly as foreign actors prolong and heighten the conflict. Stalemates in Somalia and Mali rest on the continued efforts of international coalitions, support for which is eroding in both host and troop-contributing countries and on local partners that have demonstrated their inability to govern effectively or establish legitimacy in their people’s eyes.

Amid these conditions, US Africa Command (AFRICOM) is shifting its prioritization from the counterterrorism mission to great-power competition, a move also intended to reduce risk after a 2017 attack killed four servicemen in Niger. US and European powers aim to turn over counterterrorism responsibilities to regional forces of limited effectiveness—such as the G5 Sahel, which is plagued by funding issues, and the African Union Mission in Somalia, which is beginning a scheduled drawdown

The Salafi-jihadi movement currently has four main centers of activity in Africa: Libya, Mali and its environs, the Horn of Africa, and the Lake Chad Basin. These epicenters are networked, allowing recruits, funding, and expertise to flow among them. The rise of the Salafi-jihadi movement in these and any other place is tied to the circumstances of Sunni Muslim populations. The movement takes root when Salafi-jihadi groups can forge ties to vulnerable populations facing existential crises such as civil war, communal violence, or state neglect or abuse. Local crises are the incubators for the Salafi-jihadi movement and can become the bases for future attacks against the US and its allies.

 

 

North Africa

Tunisia

Likely Islamic State militants conducted the first suicide bombing in Tunis, Tunisia’s capital, in 2020. Two attackers detonated explosives attached to a motorbike at a security barrier near the US embassy in Tunis, killing one security officer and injuring several other officers and a passerby. The attackers were under a travel ban, and one had been imprisoned previously. Tunisian officials have arrested several suspects since the attack.

The attack continues a trend of suicide bombings against security positions and patrols in Tunis. Islamic State militants conducted a double suicide bombing targeting security personnel in June 2019. A female suicide bomber attacked police officers in an unclaimed attack in October 2018.

The latest bombing may be the work of a transnational Islamic State network targeting US embassies. This is a low-confidence assessment that requires further information to verify. In January 2020, Lebanese security forces arrested an Islamic State militant and Syrian national named Ibrahim al Salem for planning to attack the US embassy in Beirut, Lebanon, with a self-assembled, explosive-bearing drone. Salem confessed to online contact with a senior Islamic State militant based in Tunisia—Abdullah al Tunisi—who advised Salem to attack the US embassy.

Lebanese authorities reportedly warned Tunisian authorities that al Tunisi was *plotting to attack the US embassy in Tunis. Al Tunisi has not been linked to the March 6 attack in Tunis at the time of writing. His involvement would indicate the existence of an Islamic State network in at least two countries focused on attacking US diplomatic posts.

 

Libya

European leaders are attempting to convince Libyan National Army (LNA) commander Khalifa Haftar to accept a cease-fire but are unlikely to succeed while Haftar retains other external backing. Haftar met with French President Emmanuel Macron in Paris on March 9 and German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin on March 10. In Paris, Haftar signaled openness to a cease-fire only if the militias aligned with the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) accept it. This statement is likely cover for Haftar’s intent to continue pursuing a military solution.

Haftar’s forces initiated the battle for Tripoli in April 2019. GNA Prime Minister Fayez al Serraj agreed to a cease-fire in Moscow in January, but Haftar walked out without signing the deal. Merkel urged Serraj to commit to a cease-fire during a phone call on March 12.

The French and German outreach is an attempt to preserve momentum from the late January Berlin conference on Libya, which sought to address the issue of foreign involvement. The conference led to a series of talks in Geneva, which have stalled. The UN Special Envoy for Libya Ghassan Salame resigned on March 2, citing the effects of stress on his health.

Choosing Salame’s successor will likely be another source of deadlock. Salame’s deputy, American diplomat Stephanie Williams, is currently acting envoy. The UN secretary general is reportedly considering former Algerian Foreign Minister Ramtane Lamamra as Salame’s successor.

Foreign involvement is a key driver of Libya’s war, which has become increasingly international since Haftar’s forces launched the assault on Tripoli in April. The offensive has stalled despite extensive military support from the UAE, Egypt, Russia, and Saudi Arabia, including the deployment of hundreds of Russian Wagner Group mercenaries and thousands of UAE-financed Sudanese fighters. Turkey intervened on the GNA’s side in late 2019 to stop the LNA’s advance. Turkey now provides military advisers and Syrian mercenaries to support the GNA.

The frontlines have largely stalled since Turkey increased its support for the GNA and associated forces in late 2019. Ankara has sustained its Libya footprint even while responding to a Syrian regime offensive in northwestern Syria’s Idlib province. Turkey and Russia, which backs Assad, struck a cease-fire deal on Idlib in early March. The LNA renewed an offensive push from the south at the end of February.

The LNA is strengthening ties with Syrian President Bashar al Assad’s regime. LNA-aligned officials reopened the Libyan embassy in Damascus on March 2. Libyan and Syrian officials announced their unified fight against Turkish-backed armed groups. Syrian sources have *reported that pro-Assad and pro-Russian groups are *recruiting Syrian fighters to support the LNA and Russia’s Wagner Group in Libya.

The GNA’s Ministry of Interior is attempting to leverage its improved position to wrest power from militia cartels that control Tripoli. Turkish backing has bolstered the GNA, which has held power in Tripoli through an uneasy deal with militias that have controlled parts of the capital for years. GNA Interior Minister Fathi Bashagha is attempting to bring policing and security operations under his authority. He *denounced the Nawasi Brigade militia for making arrests on February 23.

Nawasi and other militias *blocked Bashagha from the Ain Zara neighborhood on February 25 in response, which the GNA countered by establishing a new checkpoint and patrol on March 12. A GNA-aligned militia also accused Nawasi of assassinating one of its commanders on March 9.

Forecast: Foreign support for Libyan factions will continue, and the UN-brokered peace process will not yield a sustainable cease-fire. The most likely case is a grinding stalemate in a configuration similar to the current front lines. It is possible but less likely that the LNA will claim an initial victory by luring Misratan forces away from Tripoli and securing defections among Tripoli-based militias, particularly if arms embargo enforcement disproportionally affects Turkey.

 

This outcome would set conditions for insurgency, likely quickly. Either branch—the stalemate or the LNA advance—preserves and worsens the conditions that will allow Salafi-jihadi groups to strengthen. Alternately, diplomatic efforts paired with Haftar’s backers’ growing frustration could constrain the LNA and possibly marginalize Haftar over time. This could create space for others in the LNA camp to pursue a cease-fire, though it also increases the risk of the LNA coalition’s fragmenting. (Updated February 25, 2020)

 

 

West Africa

The Western Sahel (Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger)

The Salafi-jihadi movement is ascendant in the western Sahel region. Militants aligned with both al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and the Islamic State are growing more lethal and may soon establish de facto control over a large swath of the region. Militant attacks in this region have increased fivefold since 2016 and are concentrated in central Mali, northern Burkina Faso, and western Niger. The tactics that these groups use to overrun military bases could someday  enable attacks in Western capitals.

The rapid deterioration of security in West Africa is happening as the US Department of Defense considers withdrawing most, if not all, US troops from the region. This reduction could include ceasing intelligence and logistics support for the French counterterrorism mission in the Sahel. The US Department of State created a new special envoy position for the Sahel in early March in recognition of the regional crisis. The African Union has also announced its intent to send a 3,000-man temporary force to the Sahel.

AQIM’s affiliate in the Sahel expressed willingness to negotiate with the Malian government if French and UN forces withdraw from the country. Jama’at Nusrat al Islam wa al Muslimeen (JNIM) framed its willingness to engage in talks as heeding the Malian people’s will. The group’s statement claimed Malians have held “massive marches” against the French presence, an overstatement meant to capitalize on a more modest uptick in anti-French political rhetoric and protest this year.[1] Malian President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita acknowledged on February 10 that his government had contacted senior JNIM leaders to pursue talks, citing peace talks with the Afghan Taliban as a model.

Likely JNIM militants intensified attacks near Kidal in Gao region as the Malian government seeks to project authority there. Malian Army troops deployed to Kidal as part of the implementation of the 2015 peace agreement on February 10. Mali’s Prime Minister visited the northern town on March 4. Militants ambushed Irish peacekeepers on the Gao-Kidal road on February 25, injuring three soldiers. JNIM claimed an attack on the French Army in Kidal on March 9.[2]

JNIM is capitalizing on violence against civilians to gain popular support. JNIM claimed an attack on a Malian Army post in Mondoro in central Mali’s Mopti region as retaliation for a reported massacre of Fulani civilians in early March.[3] JNIM had previously denied an attack on a market in Mopti region and condemned attacks on churches on February 26.[4]

Salafi-jihadi groups in the Sahel  gain popular support by presenting themselves as the defenders of vulnerable populations while stoking retaliatory violence. This cycle is escalating in northern Burkina Faso, where gunmen massacred dozens of civilians in villages where Salafi-jihadi militants reportedly sought shelter on March 9.

JNIM’s disavowal of attacks on Christian worship sites reflects al Qaeda senior leadership guidance and may be another indicator of strategic divergence with the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara.

Two hostages escaped in northern Mali. Canadian Edith Blais and Italian Luca Tacchetto escaped their captors near Kidal in northern Mali. They arrived in the capital Bamako on March 14. Blais and Tacchetto were kidnapped while traveling to Bobo-Dioulasso in southwestern Burkina Faso in late 2018. The Macina Liberation Front, a component of JNIM, operates in this region of Burkina Faso and may have been responsible for the kidnapping. JNIM also operates in Kidal.

Sweden will contribute a rapid reaction force to the French-led international counterterrorism mission in Mali. The force will include 150 troops and helicopters.

Forecast: Salafi-jihadi groups will begin to establish governing institutions—such as courts—in the Burkinabe-Malian-Nigerien tri-border area in the next six months, though it may mask these efforts to facilitate a deal with the Malian government. Salafi-jihadi groups may also work through local governance structures to present themselves as legitimate interlocutors and avoid scrutiny. Attacks on Fulani civilians will drive greater popular support to JNIM, which will present itself as a more moderate alternative. (Updated February 25, 2020)

 

 

The Lake Chad Basin

Infighting may weaken both the Islamic State’s West Africa Province (ISWA) and Boko Haram in the near term but could lead to the groups’ merger. ISWA and Boko Haram split in 2016. ISWA has previously gained popular support by demonstrating more restraint than Boko Haram does and eschewing certain attacks. A change in strategy could make ISWA more lethal in the short term but may undermine the group’s effort to establish governance.

ISWA members reportedly mutinied over a disagreement over the group’s rules of engagement. They allegedly killed ISWA leader Abu Abdullah ibn Umar al Barnawi and militants Abu Maryam and Abu Zainab for "going soft" after they introduced a new regulation in February. The new regulation required fighters to stop pursuing soldiers fleeing during attacks and to cease killing captured soldiers. ISWA named Amir Abba Gana as al Barnawi's successor, according to local sources that shared this news with the Nigerian military on February 24. ISWA militants also murdered four members of ISWA’s shura council in early March. These ousters are likely not sanctioned by Islamic State leadership. The Islamic State has not commented on the removal of Islamic State–sanctioned ISWA emir Abu Musab al Barnawi in early 2019.

Boko Haram is also experiencing infighting over strategy. Militants are allegedly planning to assassinate the group’s leader Abubakar Shekau because of his unpredictability and nonadherence to Islamic tenets or Boko Haram’s original doctrine and ideology, particularly his use of women and children in attacks. Boko Haram tends to target Muslim civilians and is frequently condemned for its treatment of women and children. Shekau’s extreme tactics prompted Boko Haram ISWA to split into separate groups in 2016.

ISWA promoted its control of a local economic hub in northeastern Nigeria. An ISWA official, interviewed in the Islamic State’s al Naba bulletin, emphasized the economic and military value of Baga, a fishing town in Borno State located on a highway to the regional capital Maiduguri.[5] ISWA seized Baga in December 2018.

 

 

East Africa

Sudan

The attempted assassination of Sudan’s prime minister indicates the country’s fragile new government may destabilize. Sudanese Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok survived an assassination attempt targeting his convoy in Khartoum on March 9. He was unharmed. Witnesses reported an explosion caused by either a projectile or a car bomb. Sudan's Sovereign Council appointed Hamdok to become prime minister in August 2019 after the ousting of longtime leader Omar al Bashir in April. Hamdok is attempting to reform the country toward civilian rule by 2022 but has faced resistance from the military. Security forces linked to al Bashir instigated a gunfight in Khartoum over severance reforms in mid-January.

For more on the implications of instability in Sudan, see Emily Estelle’s “Chaos in Sudan and the rest of North Africa threatens all of us,” originally published in the Los Angeles Times in May 2019.

Kenya and Somalia

The al Shabaab insurgency in Somalia is largely stalemated, but conditions—including political instability and the planned withdrawal of African Union peacekeeping forces—are evolving in al Shabaab’s favor. Al Shabaab has recently intensified its efforts targeting American interests and Kenya, including a January 5 raid on a US-Kenyan military position that killed three Americans.

Al Shabaab may be planning a high-casualty attack in Nairobi, Kenya’s capital. The US embassy in Nairobi warned in late February that the group is planning an attack on a popular tourist hotel in Nairobi.

Al Shabaab has escalated its campaign in Kenyan counties bordering Somalia. Al Shabaab is targeting *military posts, police, police reservists, and telecommunications infrastructure in eastern Kenya, a longtime area of recruitment for the group.[6] Al Shabaab has also sustained attacks on police targets and telecommunications infrastructure. Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta gave a group of eastern Kenyan politicians and administrators 14 days to come up with a solution to the deteriorating security situation on February 26.

Al Shabaab’s spokesman attempted to persuade ethnic Somalis in eastern Kenya to support al Shabaab in a February 16 recording.[7] He argued that non-Muslim Kenyans treat ethnic Somalis in its eastern provinces like second-class citizens and appealed to economic anxieties driven by unemployment.

Kenyan involvement in a Somali political crisis is causing backlash in Kenya. Kenyan Defense Forces (KDF) support regional security forces in southern Somalia’s Jubbaland State. Parliamentarians from Kenya’s Mandera County criticized the Kenyan government for the *skirmishes between the Somali National Army (SNA) and Jubbaland State security forces in early March in southwestern Somalia’s Gedo region. Some Kenyan Muslims have called for the KDF to pull out of Somalia completely. Kenyan officials announced in early March that they would begin scheduled negotiations to withdraw the KDF from Somalia by 2021.

Somali political crises are drawing resources away from the fight against al Shabaab. Federal SNA forces *clashed with Jubbaland State security forces on March 2.  The skirmishes follow a month of increasing tensions after the SNA took over the Gedo region from Jubbaland State security forces in early February.

The Jubbaland crisis has spiked tensions between the Kenyan government and the Somali Federal Government, but the debacle may be resolving. The Kenyan government accused the SNA of violating its territory during clashes with Jubbaland State security forces on March 4. Somali President Mohamed Farmajo *accepted an invitation from Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta to resolve the Jubbaland conflict at an upcoming meeting in Nairobi.

SNA forces have also clashed with a regional militia in Galmudug state in central Somalia. The leader of the Ahlu Sunna wa al Jama’a militia surrendered to the SNA on February 29.

The death of the al Shabaab commander responsible for the Manda Bay attack in Kenya in early January may help the leader of al Shabaab, Ahmad Umar, solidify his control over the group. US Africa Command confirmed that an air strike in late February killed Bashir Mohamed Mahamoud (Bashir Qoorgaab), a senior al Shabaab commander who planned the attack that killed three Americans. Umar had dismissed Qoorgaab from al Shabaab's executive council for disagreeing with Umar over targeting civilians in attacks in the Somali capital, Mogadishu.

Al Shabaab members also arrested and *executed Muse Moalim, the former chief coordinator of the group’s intelligence brigade, on March 9. Moalim had *resigned in mid-February amid escalating tensions between Ahmad Umar and several top commanders.

Forecast: Al Shabaab will attempt a spectacular attack in Kenya in the first half of 2020. The group will also sustain a campaign of bombings in Mogadishu and elsewhere as part of a broader campaign to disrupt the planned 2020 elections. (Unchanged since January 9, 2020)

 

Mozambique

Russian mercenaries are conducting counterinsurgency operations in Mozambique that risk worsening popular grievances and inflaming the Salafi-jihadi insurgency they are meant to counter. A second contingent of Russian Wagner Group mercenaries arrived in Mozambique. For more on the objectives of Russian counterterrorism missions in Africa, see the October 16 Africa File.

 


[1] “Echoing Taliban, JNIM expresses openness to negotiations with Malian government if France, UN withdraws,” SITE Intelligence Group, March 9, 2020, available by subscription at www.siteintelgroup.com.

[2] “JNIM claims bombing French and MINUSMA military vehicles in Mali, armored vehicle in Burkina Faso,” SITE Intelligence Group, March 9, 2020, available by subscription at www.siteintelgroup.com.

[3] “JNIM claims attack on Malian Army post as vengeance for massacre of civilians,” SITE Intelligence Group, March 5, 2020, available by subscription at www.siteintelgroup.com.

[4] “JNIM denies attack on Dogo market, disavows strikes on churches,” SITE Intelligence Group, February 26, 2020, available by subscription at www.siteintelgroup.com.

[5] “ISWAP military official speaks to IS’ Naba newspaper on enemy offensives in Baga,” SITE Intelligence Group, March 13, 2020, available by subscription at www.siteintelgroup.com.

[6] “Shabaab claims attacks in Kenya’s Garissa and Mandera counties, firing 30 mortars at Ugandan bases in Lower Shabelle,” SITE Intelligence Group, February 26, 2020, available by subscription at www.siteintelgroup.com.

[7] “Shabaab spokesman threatens non-Muslims in northeastern Kenya, cautions Muslims from supporting government,” SITE Intelligence Group, February 26, 2020, available by subscription at www.siteintelgroup.com.

View Citations

February 25 Briefing: West Africa at Risk of Becoming Salafi-jihadi Haven

Notice: The Critical Threats Project frequently cites sources from foreign domains. All such links are identified with an asterisk (*) for the reader's awareness.

The Salafi-jihadi movement is on the verge of gaining a valuable and secure safe haven in West Africa. This haven will allow Salafi-jihadi groups to develop and deploy external attack capabilities that they will ultimately turn on the US and its allies. Salafi-jihadi groups in West Africa also have an opportunity to pursue a large-scale governance project—a major step toward the Salafi-jihadi movement’s overall goal that will mitigate the effects of the destruction of the Islamic State’s territorial caliphate in Iraq and Syria.

Mali’s president cited Afghanistan as a model when he announced the opening of negotiations with Salafi-jihadi leaders this month. These talks are effectively a capitulation to facts on the ground: Salafi-jihadi groups are establishing de facto control over large swaths of territory in Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger by deterring local militaries and widening societal fissures. At the same time, the US Department of Defense is considering withdrawing troops from West Africa and ending critical support for a French-led counterterrorism mission there. On current trajectory, the Salafi-jihadi movement will gain an enduring haven in the Sahel from which to plot attacks, raise money, and indoctrinate a new generation to support its global mission for years to come.

 

Read Further On:

West Africa

North Africa

East Africa

 


At a Glance: The Salafi-Jihadi Threat in Africa

Updated February 25, 2020

Global counterterrorism efforts are rapidly receding as the US shifts its strategic focus to competition with Iran, China, Russia, and North Korea. The US administration seeks to withdraw American troops from Afghanistan and is close to an agreement with the Taliban. The future of Iraq, and US forces’ presence there, is uncertain. Indicators of the Islamic State’s return are apparent in both Iraq and Syria, however, as the group recovers from the death of its leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi and other senior officials in late October.

Meanwhile, the Salafi-jihadi movement, including al Qaeda and Islamic State affiliates and allies, continues to make gains in Africa, including in areas in which previous counterterrorism efforts had significantly reduced Salafi-jihadi groups’ capabilities. The movement is positioned to take advantage of the expected general reduction in counterterrorism pressure to establish new support zones, consolidate old ones, increase attack capabilities, and expand to new areas of operations. The Salafi-jihadi movement is on the offensive in Burkina Faso, on the counteroffensive in Libya, and stalemated in Mali, Somalia, and Nigeria. However, conditions in these last three countries favor the Salafi-jihadi movement rather than its opponents in the coming year.

Libya’s civil war, reignited on a large scale in April, will continue to fuel the conditions of a Salafi-jihadi comeback, particularly as foreign actors prolong and heighten the conflict. Stalemates in Somalia and Mali rest on the continued efforts of international coalitions, support for which is eroding in both host and troop-contributing countries and on local partners that have demonstrated their inability to govern effectively or establish legitimacy in their people’s eyes.

Amid these conditions, US Africa Command (AFRICOM) is shifting its prioritization from the counterterrorism mission to great-power competition, a move also intended to reduce risk after a 2017 attack killed four servicemen in Niger. US and European powers aim to turn over counterterrorism responsibilities to regional forces of limited effectiveness—such as the G5 Sahel, which is plagued by funding issues, and the African Union Mission in Somalia, which is beginning a scheduled drawdown

The Salafi-jihadi movement currently has four main centers of activity in Africa: Libya, Mali and its environs, the Horn of Africa, and the Lake Chad Basin. These epicenters are networked, allowing recruits, funding, and expertise to flow among them. The rise of the Salafi-jihadi movement in these and any other place is tied to the circumstances of Sunni Muslim populations. The movement takes root when Salafi-jihadi groups can forge ties to vulnerable populations facing existential crises such as civil war, communal violence, or state neglect or abuse. Local crises are the incubators for the Salafi-jihadi movement and can become the bases for future attacks against the US and its allies.

 

 

West Africa

The Western Sahel (Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger)

The Salafi-jihadi movement is ascendant in the western Sahel region. Militants aligned with both al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and the Islamic State are growing more lethal and may soon establish de facto control over a large swath of the region. Militant attacks in this region have increased fivefold since 2016 and are concentrated in central Mali, northern Burkina Faso, and western Niger. The tactics that these groups use to overrun military bases could someday  enable attacks in Western capitals.

The rapid deterioration of security in West Africa is happening as the US Department of Defense considers withdrawing most, if not all, US troops from the region. This reduction could include ceasing intelligence and logistics support for the French counterterrorism mission in the Sahel.

The Malian government is attempting to address the crisis by opening negotiations with Salafi-jihadi leaders. Malian President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita acknowledged on February 10 that his government had contacted senior leaders of the AQIM-affiliate Jama’at Nusrat al Islam wa al Muslimeen (JNIM).

The Malian government is also taking steps to implement a 2015 peace agreement with armed groups in northern Mali, but this implementation is unlikely to affect Salafi-jihadi activity. Malian Army troops deployed to the northern regional capitals of Kidal and Timbuktu on February 10 and 18 respectively as part of the agreement. Malian troops will likely confine their operations to population centers and bases, allowing Salafi-jihadi groups to retain freedom of movement across rural areas in northern Mali. The peace agreement also does not include armed groups in central Mali, which has become the epicenter of violence in recent years. 

French and Nigerien forces targeted Salafi-jihadi support zones in central Mali and western Niger. French forces killed approximately 50 JNIM and Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) militants and destroyed dozens of vehicles in a two-part operation around Mopti in central Mali between February 9 and 17. The operation follows several other French-led operations in Mali as France seeks to build European support for a new special operations taskforce in the Sahel. A joint French-Nigerien operation killed more than 100 militants and seized bomb-making equipment in western Niger, a response to a series of devastating ISGS attacks on Nigerien military outposts in recent months.

JNIM blamed France for a massacre of civilians in central Mali. JNIM accused the Malian Army of committing a February 13 massacre targeting Fulani civilians in central Mali’s Mopti Region and blamed France for supporting the Malian government.[1] The attack, which killed more than 30 people, is the latest in a cycle of ethnic violence that Salafi-jihadi groups have  stoked and exploited to gain popular support. The same village was the site of a large massacre in March 2019.

Salafi-jihadi groups are collaborating across organizational divides to take control of terrain across the western Sahel. JNIM and ISGS compete for recruits but share objectives and may have coordinated a campaign to isolate Burkina Faso’s capital Ouagadougou. This unity of purpose across divisions makes the Sahelian Salafi-jihadi movement resilient. ISGS’s higher-profile attacks have made it the target of counterterrorism pressure, allowing al Qaeda–linked groups to present themselves as more moderate and build local governing alliances (a la Syria).

Militant activity is reaching new parts of Burkina Faso. Militants conducted the first rocket attack in the country’s southwest, targeting a ranger station, on February 17.

JNIM continued a joint messaging campaign with al Shabaab. JNIM praised al Shabaab for its jihad in East Africa and signaled brotherhood with the group on February 13.[2] Al Shabaab released a similar message in late January praising JNIM’s attacks on security forces in the Sahel. Al Qaeda General Command messaging supports both JNIM and al Shabaab and emphasizes their alignment with al Qaeda’s strategic priorities.

Forecast: Salafi-jihadi groups will begin to establish governing institutions—such as courts—in the tri-border area in the next six months, though it may mask these efforts to facilitate a deal with the Malian government. Salafi-jihadi groups may also work through local governance structures to present themselves as legitimate interlocutors and avoid scrutiny. Attacks on Fulani civilians will drive greater popular support to JNIM, which will present itself as a more moderate alternative. (Updated February 25, 2020)

 

The Lake Chad Basin

Salafi-jihadi groups are isolating populated areas in northeastern Nigeria and expanding their zone of de facto control. Boko Haram militants cut off electricity to Maiduguri, the capital of Nigeria’s northeastern Borno State, in mid-January. The Islamic State’s West Africa Province (ISWA) claimed to have set fire to 20 government buildings in Borno State on February 10.[3] Such attacks are intended to delegitimize the Nigerian government and present Salafi-jihadi groups as alternative governance providers for local populations.

Militant activity has focused on Yobe State, which borders the epicenter of activity in Borno State, in early 2020. Suspected Boko Haram militants destroyed telecommunications infrastructure in a neighboring state in mid-February, likely to facilitate the attempted takeover of a nearby town.

Counterterrorism measures often worsen the grievances that enable Salafi-jihadi insurgencies in Nigeria. Suspected Boko Haram militants attacked a military checkpoint in Borno State on February 9. Victims were reportedly stranded due to a military-imposed curfew. The military also disputed casualty reports.

ISWA continues to support the Islamic State’s global messaging campaigns. ISWA threatened revenge for the killing of former Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi on February 14.[4]

 

 

North Africa

Hostilities continued in Libya after the passage of a UN Security Council Resolution calling for a cease-fire. The UK-drafted resolution, which passed on February 12 with Russia abstaining, called for a commitment to a “lasting ceasefire” according to terms determined by Libyan military representatives at prior talks in Geneva.

Foreign involvement is a key driver of Libya’s war. Foreign support—notably Turkish, Russian, and Emirati—for Libyan belligerents has intensified in recent weeks and months. The Libyan National Army (LNA), led by Khalifa Haftar, controls the country’s east and has a presence in the south. The LNA’s primary backers are Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Russia, Sudan, and Saudi Arabia.

The LNA launched an offensive to seize Tripoli, Libya’s capital, in April 2019. This offensive has stalled despite Emirati air support and the deployment of hundreds of Russian Wagner Group mercenaries and thousands of Sudanese fighters. Russian mercenaries have made the Tripoli fighting more lethal and have also  helped the LNA take control of much of Libya’s oil infrastructure. LNA-aligned forces have been blockading Libya’s oil exports to gain leverage in negotiations since January.

The LNA’s opponent is the UN-recognized Libyan Government of National Accord (GNA) and associated militias, many from the northwestern city of Misrata. Turkey has provided drones and armored vehicles to support the GNA in Tripoli throughout 2019, helping stall Haftar’s offensive. Turkey now provides military advisers and Syrian mercenaries to support the GNA. Turkey’s president confirmed the death of two Turkish soldiers in Libya on February 25.

The LNA escalated its efforts to pressure the GNA economically and militarily, derailing peace talks. The LNA shelled Tripoli’s commercial port on February 18, narrowly missing a gas tanker. Regular clashes and shelling have continued on the Tripoli front and south of Misrata. GNA representatives temporarily stopped negotiations between GNA and LNA officials after the strike on Tripoli’s port and are now calling for the LNA to withdraw from the area around Tripoli as a condition in talks.

Parliamentarians from the Haftar-aligned government in eastern Libya separately refused to participate in the political negotiations set to begin in Geneva on February 26. Reports of LNA mobilizations northwest of Tripoli indicate that the LNA may be preparing to open another front.

The EU is moving to increase enforcement of the arms embargo on Libya, but uneven enforcement will favor the LNA. EU governments agreed to resume Mediterranean Sea patrols to interdict illegal arms shipments by the end of March. Arms embargo enforcement will disrupt shipments from Turkey to the GNA but will not affect UAE shipments to the LNA through Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Italian officials seized a Lebanese-flagged vessel accused of trafficking weapons from Turkey to Libya at an Italian port on February 3.

Forecast: Foreign support for Libyan militias will continue, and the UN-brokered peace process will not yield a sustainable cease-fire. The most likely case is a grinding stalemate in a configuration similar to the current front lines. It is possible but less likely that the LNA will claim an initial victory by luring Misratan forces away from Tripoli and securing defections among Tripoli-based militias, particularly if arms embargo enforcement disproportionally affects Turkey.

This outcome would set conditions for insurgency, likely very quickly. Either branch—the stalemate or the LNA advance—preserves and worsens the conditions that will allow Salafi-jihadi groups to strengthen. Alternately, diplomatic efforts paired with Haftar’s backers’ growing frustration could constrain the LNA and possibly marginalize Haftar over time. This could create space for others in the LNA camp to pursue a cease-fire, though it also increases the risk of the LNA coalition’s fragmenting. (Updated February 25, 2020)

 

 

East Africa

The al Shabaab insurgency in Somalia is largely stalemated, but conditions—including political instability and the planned withdrawal of African Union peacekeeping forces—are evolving in al Shabaab’s favor. Al Shabaab has recently intensified its efforts targeting American interests and Kenya, including a January 5 raid on a US-Kenyan military position that killed three Americans.

Al Shabaab overran two military bases southwest of Mogadishu, demonstrating a high degree of operational planning and coordination. The group conducted twin attacks targeting Ugandan African Union Mission to Somalia and Somali military bases in *Qoryoley and *El Salini southwest of Mogadishu in the Lower Shabelle region on February 19. Al Shabaab combined vehicle-borne explosives and small arms to overrun the bases, looting weaponry and vehicles. Somalia’s president fired the army chief of staff over Somali military casualties at the El Salini base.

Al Shabaab is attempting to undermine the Kenyan police’s ability to gather intelligence by targeting the Kenyan National Police Reserve in rural Kenyan counties. Al Shabaab carried out three attacks against police reservists in six days. The National Police Reserve is an auxiliary police force active in rural areas with limited police presence.

 

Forecast: Al Shabaab will attempt a spectacular attack in Kenya in the first half of 2020. The group will also sustain a campaign of bombings in Mogadishu and elsewhere as part of a broader campaign to disrupt the planned 2020 elections. (Unchanged since January 9, 2020)

 

Ethiopia may destabilize due to ethnic-based violence in upcoming elections. An ethno-nationalist armed group assassinated a security official and bombed a pro-government rally for Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed in Ethiopia’s Oromia region on February 21 and 23. Ahmed, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019, signed a peace agreement with the Oromo Liberation Front, formally declared a terrorist organization, in 2018. Ethiopia’s parliamentary elections are set for August 29, 2020.

 

For more on US interests in Ethiopia, see Emily Estelle’s 2018 testimony, “Ethiopia’s Strategic Importance: US National Security Interests at Risk in the Horn of Africa.”


[1] “JNIM holds France responsible for recent Ogossagou massacre of Fulani people,” SITE Intelligence Group, February 18, 2020, available by subscription at www.siteintelgroup.com.

[2] “JNIM reciprocates laudatory message from Shabaab, expresses brotherhood in reply,” SITE Intelligence Group, February 14, 2020, available by subscription at www.siteintelgroup.com.

[3] “ISWAP claims 3 operations in Borno, burning 20 government buildings,” SITE Intelligence Group, February 11, 2020, available by subscription at www.siteintelgroup.com.

[4] “In video documenting attacks in Nigeria, ISWAP fighter threatens revenge for Baghdadi death,” SITE Intelligence Group, February 14, 2020, available by subscription at www.siteintelgroup.com.

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February 11 Briefing

Notice: The Critical Threats Project frequently cites sources from foreign domains. All such links are identified with an asterisk (*) for the reader's awareness.

The Sahel region of West Africa is becoming an enduring haven for the global Salafi-jihadi movement. Al Qaeda–linked militants in the Sahel have pressured authorities into negotiations and are gradually establishing governance across an area spanning parts of Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso. A potential US military drawdown in West Africa could undermine an existing French-led counterterrorism mission and allow Salafi-jihadi groups to more easily establish a de facto emirate in the Sahel. US Africa Command (AFRICOM) has shifted its mission in West Africa from degrading to containing violent extremist organizations, according to a Department of Defense Office of the Inspector General report released on February 11.

Salafi-jihadi groups are aware of the US policy environment, and a recent uptick in attacks and statements targeting the US may be intended to encourage an American drawdown. Al Qaeda leadership lauded al Shabaab’s January 5 attack on American personnel in Kenya and called for similar attacks on servicepeople and contractors in West Africa. Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), which helps finance the Salafi-jihadi governance-building project in the Sahel, called for attacks on US interests in response to the Trump administration’s Middle East peace plan in early February.[1]

Salafi-jihadi groups in the Sahel pose a growing threat to littoral West African states. An early February attack in Benin near the Burkinabe border underscores the continued threat following the kidnapping of French tourists and the murder of their guide in 2019. US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo will visit Senegal on a three-country Africa tour in the coming week, in part to reinforce Senegal’s position as a “bulwark” against spreading regional instability.

Previously dormant Salafi-jihadi groups in the Sahel and neighboring regions have resumed activity in recent months, another indicator of their increased freedom of movement. The Islamic State in Algeria claimed a suicide bombing targeting a military position in the country’s far south, its second claimed attack since November following a more than two-year silence. Ansaru, an al Qaeda–linked militant group based in Nigeria, has claimed its first two attacks since 2013. A previously unknown militant group in Mali near the Mauritanian border also surfaced to pledge allegiance to the Islamic State’s new leader.  

The civil war in Libya, which borders the Sahel, will also benefit Salafi-jihadi groups. The conflict has continued unabated despite UN-led efforts to broker a cease-fire. The war is deepening grievances and prolonging conditions that have allowed Salafi-jihadi groups to establish havens in Libya in the past.

 

Read Further On:

West Africa

North Africa

East Africa

 


At a Glance: The Salafi-jihadi Threat in Africa

Updated January 9, 2020

 Global counterterrorism efforts are rapidly receding as the global counter–Islamic State coalition contemplates its next steps after destroying the Islamic State’s territorial caliphate and the US shifts its strategic focus to competition with Iran, China, Russia, and North Korea. US forces in Iraq temporarily halted counter–Islamic State operations on January 5 following a US strike that killed Qassem Soleimani, the commander of the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force. The uncertain future of US forces’ presence in Iraq follows a disruption in US counter–Islamic State operations in Syria in the fall of 2019. Indicators of the Islamic State’s return are apparent in both Iraq and Syria, however, as the group recovers from the death of its leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi and other senior officials in late October. The US administration also seeks to withdraw American troops from Afghanistan and is reportedly close to a cease-fire deal with the Taliban.

Meanwhile, the Salafi-jihadi movement, including al Qaeda and Islamic State affiliates and allies, continues to make gains in Africa, including in areas in which previous counterterrorism efforts had significantly reduced Salafi-jihadi groups’ capabilities. The movement is positioned to take advantage of the expected general reduction in counterterrorism pressure to establish new support zones, consolidate old ones, increase attack capabilities, and expand to new areas of operations. The Salafi-jihadi movement is on the offensive in Burkina Faso, on the counteroffensive in Libya, and stalemated in Mali, Somalia, and Nigeria. However, conditions in these last three countries favor the Salafi-jihadi movement rather than its opponents in the coming year.

Libya’s civil war, reignited on a large scale in April, will continue to fuel the Salafi-jihadi comeback, possibly allowing the Islamic State or al Qaeda to regain some of the territory they controlled before major operations against them from 2016 to 2019. The Islamic State’s comeback in Libya is part of its global effort to reconstitute capabilities after military defeats, an effort that the group’s late leader, Baghdadi, sought to galvanize in fall 2019. Stalemates in Somalia and Mali rest on the continued efforts of international coalitions, support for which is eroding in both host and troop-contributing countries, and on local partners that have demonstrated their inability to govern effectively or establish legitimacy in their people’s eyes.

Amid these conditions, AFRICOM is shifting its prioritization from the counterterrorism mission to great-power competition, a move also intended to reduce risk after a 2017 attack killed four servicemen in Niger. US and European powers aim to turn over counterterrorism responsibilities to regional forces of limited effectiveness—such as the G5 Sahel, which is plagued by funding issues, and the African Union Mission in Somalia, which is beginning a scheduled drawdown

The Salafi-jihadi movement currently has four main centers of activity in Africa: Libya, Mali and its environs, the Horn of Africa, and the Lake Chad Basin. These epicenters are networked, allowing recruits, funding, and expertise to flow among them. The rise of the Salafi-jihadi movement in these and any other place is tied to the circumstances of Sunni Muslim populations. The movement takes root when Salafi-jihadi groups can forge ties to vulnerable populations facing existential crises such as civil war, communal violence, or state neglect or abuse. Local crises are the incubators for the Salafi-jihadi movement and can become the bases for future attacks against the US and its allies.

 

West Africa

The Western Sahel (Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger)

The Salafi-jihadi movement is ascendant in the western Sahel region that includes Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso. Militants aligned with both AQIM and the Islamic State are growing more lethal and may soon establish de facto control over a large swath of this region. Militant attacks in this region have increased fivefold since 2016 and are concentrated in central Mali, northern Burkina Faso, and western Niger. The tactics that these groups use to overrun military bases could someday  enable attacks in Western capitals.

The rapid deterioration of security in West Africa is happening as the US Department of Defense considers withdrawing most, if not all, US troops from the region. This reduction could include ceasing support for the French counterterrorism mission in the Sahel. France and the leaders of the G5 Sahel states (Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger) recently announced a new military coalition to focus on fighting Islamic State–linked militants.

The Malian government opened negotiations with Salafi-jihadi leaders. Malian President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita acknowledged on February 10 that his government had contacted Iyad ag Ghali, the emir of AQIM-affiliate Jama’at Nusrat al Islam wa al Muslimeen (JNIM), and Amadou Koufa, the leader of JNIM’s contingent in central Mali. Keita cited the Afghan jirga as an example and emphasized the untenable level of violence in the Sahel. He said that counterterrorism operations would continue. Keita signed a decree establishing a new security mission in northern Mali in late January. The Malian Army also deployed forces to Kidal in northern Mali on February 10. The deployment is considered an important piece of implementing a long-stalled 2015 peace agreement between the Malian government and armed groups in northern Mali.

Salafi-jihadi activity increased in a Malian region bordering Mauritania. JNIM raided a Malian military position at Sokolo in Segou region on January 26.[2] A video circulating online showed militants in Nampala, in Segou region near the Mauritanian border, pledging allegiance to the new leader of the Islamic State, Abu Ibrahim al Hashimi al Qurayshi. The group could be a JNIM splinter and is likely connected to long-standing AQIM-linked Salafi-jihadi networks in the Segou region.

JNIM may be attempting to resolve tensions with the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS). An AQIM-linked cleric released two pamphlets responding to Islamic State sympathizers’ criticisms of JNIM practices and calling for unity among Salafi-jihadi groups. The pamphlets follow reports of heightened tensions between JNIM and ISGS, including clashes and defections.

Salafi-jihadi militants are threatening Gulf of Guinea states. Militants attacked a police station in Benin near the Burkina Faso border on February 9. The attack occurred near a cross-border national park system in which militants kidnapped French tourists and murdered a Beninese guide in May 2019.

High-casualty attacks targeting civilians continued in northern Burkina Faso. Militants killed more than 30 people in an attack in Tongomayel in Soum Province on January 26 and murdered 20 others in Séno Province on February 2. (For more on JNIM’s effort to capitalize on rising violence to gain popular support in Burkina Faso, see the January 9 Africa File.)

 

Forecast: Salafi-jihadi groups will begin to establish governing institutions—such as courts—in the tri-border area in the next six months, though it may mask these efforts to facilitate a deal with the Malian government. ISGS’s attacks on civilians will drive greater popular support to JNIM, which will present itself as a more moderate alternative. (Updated February 11, 2020)

 

The Lake Chad Basin

Ansaru, an al Qaeda–linked militant group based in Nigeria, claimed its second attack in 2020 after claiming no attacks since 2013. Militants clashed with Nigerian security forces in Kaduna State, northwest of the capital Abuja, on February 5. Both sides claimed dozens of casualties, which may be inflated.[3] Ansaru also ambushed a Nigerian army convoy escorting a local leader in Kaduna on January 15.[4]

 

 

North Africa

Libya

The Libya conflict is contributing to escalating tensions between NATO members in the Eastern Mediterranean. The French Navy dispatched warships to the Eastern Mediterranean in late January as “guarantors of peace” in a naval standoff between Greece and Turkey. Turkey signed an agreement with the Libyan Government of National Accord (GNA) in December 2019 establishing new maritime boundaries that would give Turkey ownership of waters and resources Greece currently claims.

Foreign involvement in Libya’s civil war—notably Turkish, Russian, and Emirati—has intensified in recent weeks and months. Foreign arms are a key driver of the Libya conflict, which has two main axes. The Libyan National Army (LNA), led by Khalifa Haftar, controls the country’s east and has a presence in the south. The LNA’s primary backers are Egypt, the United Arab Emirates,  Russia, Sudan, and Saudi Arabia. The LNA launched an offensive to seize Tripoli, Libya’s capital, in April 2019. This offensive has stalled despite Emirati air support and the deployment of hundreds of Russian Wagner Group mercenaries and thousands of Sudanese fighters.

The LNA’s opponent is the UN-recognized GNA and associated militias, many from the northwestern city of Misrata. Turkey has provided drones and armored vehicles to support the GNA in Tripoli throughout 2019, helping stall Haftar’s offensive. Turkey now provides military advisers and Syrian mercenaries to support the GNA.

The first round of UN-brokered cease-fire talks failed. The UN mission for Libya proposed follow-up talks in Geneva on February 18 after indirect talks between LNA and GNA officers yielded no agreement. Political and economic meetings will also convene in Cairo, Egypt. A British-drafted UN Security Council resolution is also held up by disagreement over language condemning support for mercenaries in Libya. Russian officials, who have not acknowledged the presence of Wagner Group mercenaries, sought stronger language about “foreign terrorist fighters” in reference to Turkish-backed Syrian mercenaries.

Foreign-backed hostilities continued on two fronts, but the front lines remained largely static. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that the number of Turkish-backed Syrian fighters in Libya increased. Syrian fighters reportedly participated in clashes against the LNA on the southern outskirts of Tripoli. The LNA also continued to pressure GNA-aligned forces around key checkpoints leading to Misrata city. The LNA advance on Misrata is likely intended to fix the strongest GNA-aligned forces, which are mostly from Misrata, in defense of their home city while straining their supply lines.

An oil blockade by LNA-aligned forces continues to disrupt Libya’s oil exports. LNA-aligned tribal groups, which stopped production from facilities in the country’s south and east just before the Berlin conference, will reportedly release their demands on February 13. The losses from the blockade thus far exceed $1 billion.

The number of migrants attempting to leave Libya increased. The UN Refugee Agency reported that the number of migrants intercepted in the past month increased fivefold compared to the same period in 2019. Migrants face terrible conditions inside Libya, including immediate risks from the current fighting around Tripoli. An airstrike destroyed a migrant center in the Tripoli area in July 2019, killing dozens and injuring more than 100 people.  

Forecast: Foreign support for Libyan militias will continue, and the Berlin process will not yield a sustainable cease-fire. The most likely case is a grinding stalemate in a configuration similar to the current front lines. It is possible but less likely that the LNA will claim an initial victory by luring Misratan forces away from Tripoli and securing defections among Tripoli-based militias.

This outcome would set conditions for insurgency, likely very quickly. Either branch—the stalemate or the LNA advance—preserves and worsens the conditions that will allow Salafi-jihadi groups to strengthen. Alternately, diplomatic efforts, particularly renewed Algerian engagement, paired with Haftar’s backers’ growing disillusionment could constrain the LNA and possibly marginalize Haftar over time. This could create space for others in the LNA camp to pursue a cease-fire, though it also increases the risk of the LNA coalition’s fragmenting. (As of January 22, 2020)

 

Algeria

The Islamic State in Algeria resumed explosive attacks against Algerian security forces and has shifted its focus of operations to the south. A militant detonated a suicide vehicle-borne improvised explosive device (SVBIED) targeting an Algerian military base in the country’s far south near the Malian border on February 9, killing one soldier. The Islamic State’s Algeria province claimed the attack.[5] The group last claimed a clash with Algerian security forces in southern Algeria in November, the group’s first claimed attack in more than two years.[6]

The attacks indicate a potential shift in focus to southern Algeria as opposed to the country’s more populated north, where the Islamic State has concentrated its limited efforts in Algeria in the past. Islamic State militants conducted a series of IED attacks targeting Algerian security forces in 2015–16.

 

 

East Africa

The al Shabaab insurgency in Somalia is largely stalemated, but conditions—including political instability and the planned withdrawal of African Union peacekeeping forces—are evolving in al Shabaab’s favor. Al Shabaab has recently intensified its efforts targeting American interests and Kenya, including a January 5 raid on a US-Kenyan military position that killed three Americans. The US Department of State and FBI are currently partnering with Kenya to establish the first overseas joint terrorism taskforce.  

Al Shabaab’s emir expelled two key lieutenants from the group’s executive council over disagreements over the targeting of civilians, according to Somalia’s intelligence agency. The purge, which al Shabaab has not confirmed, may have involved Mahad Karatay—the head of al Shabaab’s Amniyat secret police—and another senior commander. The dispute may be related to a high-casualty suicide bombing in Mogadishu in December, which killed more than 100 civilians and has incited public demonstrations against al Shabaab. Al Shabaab claimed responsibility for the attack but stated that it targeted Turkish and Somali security forces and has since sought to shift blame to the Somali government.

An escalating political dispute in southern Somalia will likely disrupt counter–al Shabaab coordination between the Somali Federal Government (SFG), state officials, and Kenya. Tensions have escalated in the Gedo region of southern Somalia’s Jubbaland State since federal officials and forces took control of the region from state officials in early February. The takeover follows a long-running dispute rooted in the SFG’s fraught relationship with its member states. Internecine clashes have broken out, and SFG officials have threatened to “invade” Kenya to retrieve an allegedly Kenyan-backed rogue state minister.

Forecast: Al Shabaab will attempt a spectacular attack in Kenya in the first half of 2020. The group will also sustain a campaign of bombings in Mogadishu and elsewhere as part of a broader campaign to disrupt the planned 2020 elections. (Unchanged since January 9, 2020)

 

 


[1] “AQIM calls to support jihad, target U.S. interests as means to liberate Palestine and foil Trump plan,” SITE Intelligence Group, February 7, 2020, available by subscription at www.siteintelgroup.com.

[2] “JNIM claims killing 20 Malian soldiers, taking 3 POWs in Sokolo raid,” SITE Intelligence Group, January 28, 2020, available by subscription at www.siteintelgroup.com.

[3] “Ansaru allegedly counters Nigerian military offensive in Kaduna, downs warplane,” SITE Intelligence Group, February 6, 2020, available by subscription at www.siteintelgroup.com.

[4] “Ansaru allegedly counters Nigerian military offensive in Kaduna, downs warplane” SITE Intelligence Group, February 6, 2020, available by subscription at www.siteintelgroup.com.

[5] “IS claims suicide bombing on Algerian military base in southern town of Timiaouine,” SITE Intelligence Group, February 11, 2020, available by subscription at www.siteintelgroup.com.

[6] “After 2+ year absence, IS’ Algeria province claims killing 8 soldiers in clash in Tamanrasset,” SITE Intelligence Group, November 21, 2019, available by subscription at www.siteintelgroup.com.

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